Louisiana’s criminal-justice system has two dubious honors: First is its unwillingness, and now inability, to fund public defenders; and the second, more widely known, is that the state has the highest incarceration rate in the world, three times that of Iran.
These are important things to keep in mind when we’re talking about Alton Sterling, the black man shot to death by two Baton Rouge police officers on Tuesday. The next day, videos of the shooting circulated widely, and the Justice Department announced it would open a civil rights investigation. While the details of Sterling’s death will continue to be examined, what we do know is that his murder happened in the context of a deeply flawed criminal-justice system in a state that imprisons more people per capita than anywhere on earth.
“And how do you get the highest over-incarceration?” asks Lisa Graybill, deputy director of criminal-justice reform for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “You police the hell out of the African-American community.”
Formerly of the Justice Department’s civil rights division specializing in police misconduct, Graybill now focuses on police and prison reform, particularly in the Deep South with its profoundly entrenched history of racism. “Some of the same symptoms are those that plague other states with disproportionate incarceration rates. I think they’re heightened in Louisiana—I don’t know that there’s anything special or different about the state compared to Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia, but in Louisiana it’s just more acute.”
Those problems are nothing new to anyone who’s read the Justice Department’s Ferguson investigation: The criminal-justice system is geared toward maintaining an economy built on arrests, convictions, and imprisonment. According to a 2012 exposé by The Times-Picayune, rural economies across the state are dependent on prison jobs and state funds they receive on a per-prisoner basis. The state pays $24.39 a day for each prisoner’s needs, and any leftover money goes to fund the local police departments. From the Picayune:
“Like hotels, prisons operating on per-diem payments must stay near 100 percent occupancy to survive. The political pressure to keep beds full is a contributing factor to the state’s world-leading incarceration rate. No other state comes close to Louisiana’s 53 percent rate of state inmates in local prisons, and few lobbies in Louisiana are as powerful as the sheriffs association.”
Read the full report here.